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Keelic and the Pathfinders of Midgarth



by



ALEXANDER EDLUND






The Keelic Travers Chronicles

Book 2







Keelic and the Pathfinders of Midgarth


Copyright © 2018 by Alexander Edlund


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express permission of the publisher. Thank you for respecting the rights of this author.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locales, and incidents are products of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual people, places or events is coincidental or fictionalized.



Published United States 2018 by Landstrider Press


www.alexanderedlund.com



ISBN: 978-0-9969936-8-5





Table of Contents


Chapter 1 — Stop, or I will make you

Chapter 2 — Deepholm

Chapter 3 — Pathfinder Cadet

Chapter 4 — I think Garth has plans for you

Chapter 5 — Not if I find him first

Chapter 6 — Welcome to New Jove, Captain

Chapter 7 — Engaging translight . . . now!

Chapter 8 — Kill it

Chapter 9 — You are not meant to be us


About the Author



Chapter 1


Stop, or I will make you.


On the bridge of his battleship the Revenge, Keelic used the central holographic pit to watch the council meeting in the ship’s strategic planning room. Thirty bruised and angry Ermolian colonists shouted at one another across the projection table. When they’d been told that a twelve-year-old boy had captured the pirate flagship and saved all their lives, their disbelief had been total. It had turned vicious when Keelic refused to give them control of the ship.

The planetary steward had formed an interim government aboard that he called the Planetary Council, and argued daily for taking the Revenge away from Keelic. Opposing the steward was the Pathfinder Charles Hallod, who led a minority of survivors in reminding the angry citizens that they owed their lives and freedom to Keelic, and that the young captain was the only one who knew how to fly the ancient battleship.

Keelic’s mother was sitting in the Navigation command seat on the other side of the holo pit, watching him closely. Before he had called up the view of the council, the bridge had been peaceful, and she needed peace. She liked the soft directionless lighting and the classic lines of the seven nautilus-shaped Command chairs that ringed the big holographic array.

A bitter comment by the planetary steward sent anger flaring in Keelic that was like a pulsar blast she felt through Thotti, his telepathic alien friend. In recent days, when she had tried to comfort her son, he shied away. He was gentle for her sake, but the message was clear: Keelic was not to be coddled. Her husband had told her that Keelic was now a man, but she didn’t see how that was possible. At the same time, the fury in her boy made him someone she didn’t know, and that terrified her. Worse, it seemed she could do nothing to help him. She found it ominous that Keelic had renamed the ship Revenge after he defeated the pirate fleet and rescued her and two thousand others. She couldn’t make sense of him anymore. The one thing she had learned about him in the eight days since the battle was that of all the remaining planetary leaders and officers aboard the ship, none were so dangerous as her twelve-year-old son.

She looked at Leesol Hallod standing beside him. The girl was frowning, watching the image of her father respond to the argument raging in the planning room. With Leesol, Keelic seemed to be a boy again, and his mother willed the girl to do something to ground Keelic’s rising temper.

Leesol stared at Keelic before putting a hand on his shoulder. He twitched away before realizing who it was, then looked at her in concern that he had insulted her. She smiled that she understood, and put her hand back on his arm. He tried to smile, but gave up and walked away from the display.

Sad, she turned to look at Keelic’s best friend, the young alien Thotti. To Leesol, the being looked like a flexible, streamlined turtle with soft pale fur covering his shell and twelve flexible legs around the rim. He sat on the command chair seat with all his legs curled beneath him.

Both eyestalks followed Keelic as he walked up the short stair to the upper tier of bridge consoles. Thotti was the only one who knew what Keelic was truly feeling, the deep reasons, and the alien echoed Keelic’s anger telepathically with crimson color, and a nimbus of purple-blue sadness. Feeling Leesol’s regard, Thotti turned one eye to look at her.

To the alien, she thought, Help him, Thotti.

Leesol’s vision swirled blue and she felt a sense of affirmation. Thotti got up and followed Keelic off the bridge.

The ship corridors were quiet as Keelic stomped down them. “Why are they so stupid? They have to know I’ll never give them Las.”

In doubtful yellow-green, Thotti showed him the planetary steward, red-faced and shouting to be heard in the clamor of the council conference: “It does not matter what he did. Authority must command this ship. Even if he saved our lives, which has yet to be proven, he cannot claim a warship because of it. He cannot command. He’s a blighted boy!”

Through clenched teeth, Keelic said, “I heard it the first time. You don’t have to tell me again. Space! Why do you do that?”

Hurt by Keelic’s accusatory emotion, Thotti’s eyes retracted on their stalks.

Las, the ship’s sentient Announcer, said, “Captain?”

Still mad, Keelic said, “What?”

“An anti-luminal mine has detonated beyond the edge of the planetary elliptic. Shock wave vector is consistent with a vessel traveling the intersystem Beacon Way.”

Keelic froze as reasons for such a thing flashed through his mind, the worst of them being a return of the pirates.

“Project the shield!” he shouted. “Battle Protocol.”

“Shield up. Battle Protocol, aye,” said Las as Keelic sprinted for the bridge.

He didn’t bother with the stairs into the central Command well, sliding instead under the upper-tier railing, landing and bouncing hard into the side of the Command chair. He grunted and scrambled up into its curved seat as Thotti leapt from the rail to land on the curved dome of the Resource Allocation chair to his left. Thotti swung down into the seat as Keelic reached up for the Command seat’s neural interface.

“Keelic?” asked his mother from the Navigation chair to his right.

He didn’t answer, yanking down the interface and setting it firmly around his head.

Space outside the ship dominated his vision—the planet Ermol beside him in blue, green, and white, with some remains of the space station still in orbit, and a pair of descending debris fireballs trailing thin lines of smoke through the upper atmosphere. Surrounding him, tens of millions of anti-luminal mines orbited in a vast cloud of blue dots around the planet. Thirty degrees around the system’s planetary elliptic and forty degrees to stellar north, the System Beacon pulsed its signal. Just beyond, a small cloud of gas and debris was expanding slowly across the area. Keelic watched a replay of the powerful detonation. Someone had mined the Beacon Way. And whoever had just arrived in-system was now a part of the expanding cloud.

“Las, did you see what kind of ship?”

“No data before mine detonation, Captain,” Las replied. “The weapon itself was stealthed. Debris mass and vapor spectrum are consistent with a small military vessel.”

“A Mercury courier?” asked Mr. Hallod, arriving at a run.

“Sir, I do not have a materials spec on the Mercury class,” answered Las.

“Lyn does,” Mr. Hallod said.

It took Las less than a second to get an answer from Mr. Hallod’s House-Announcer on the planet below, and the ship said, “Yes, Admiral, it was almost certainly a Mercury.”

Keelic pulled off the neural interface so he could see Mr. Hallod, and found that a crowd was flowing onto the bridge—all the leaders from the council meeting down the hall, including the planetary steward.

“Las,” said Mr. Hallod. “Begin transmitting the package. Captain, the fleet from Deepholm will be here momentarily. I suggest you lower the shield. Even with the data we’re sending, it will be a job convincing—”

“Captain,” interrupted Las.

Keelic jammed on the neural interface.

Beyond the planetary minefield, battle groups were appearing in waves. Within a minute Keelic’s observation probes reported twenty-two thousand ships. Advance elements began vectoring in. He brought all torpedo tubes up to full power, and charged the particle cannon and beam weapons.

“Keelic,” said Mr. Hallod’s calm voice beside him. “They aren’t here for us.”

As com patterns and energy signatures were classified, Las tagged the incoming ships as Alliance Defense League vessels. Keelic overlaid the system map with the escape routes through the minefield that they’d plotted as a contingency, and watched as Las revised the plots based on ADL fleet disposition. The options narrowed as the ADL scanned the minefield and adjusted formations.

“Keelic,” repeated Mr. Hallod.

Keelic ignored him, remembering the desperate battle to fight his way free of the planetary minefield the last time—torpedoes a swarm, blooms of plasma obscuring his field of view, the ship shuddering under the impact of the new Quat-lat Kay-ku weapons.

Still gentle, Mr. Hallod said, “As we planned, Captain. Lower the shield.”

Mr. Hallod looked to Thotti.

The alien stopped managing the neural interface, and the tactical field went blurry. Keelic pushed the interface away. Keeping his eyes closed, he let his friend soothe his wild emotions. After a second, he nodded.

Las said, “Shield is down. De-powering weapons.”

Taking a deep breath, Keelic opened his eyes and looked into the holo pit. The ADL fleets were entering the outer fringe of the minefield, keeping their speed down. A cloud of small targets flashed into space ahead of destroyers leading the charge.

“Ship-killers inbound,” announced Las.

Keelic looked over at Mr. Hallod. The Pathfinder was watching the advance of the ADL in the holo pit. Keelic could see his mentor thinking, and what he thought was not good. Keelic’s eyes widened. The ADL didn’t believe the information package! He reached up for the neural interface and met Mr. Hallod’s gaze.

Mr. Hallod said, “You know what’s at stake. I trust you both.” He turned from the Command chair, and his voice filled the room. “The ADL is not responding to our hails. Council members, find a seat or clear the bridge.”

Keelic barely heard him, immersing himself in the tactical situation.

“Las?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Go.”

The display whirled as Las spun the ship, and a body-numbing hum filled the room as full power flowed into the nominal-space engines. The planet loomed large as they dove right past it, skimming the upper atmosphere. The maneuver pulled a gasp of surprise from those around the bridge. Keelic grinned, and zoomed out the display.

Over half of the ADL fleet was now within the anti-luminal minefield where all ships were limited to a top speed well below light speed. Mr. Hallod had correctly predicted the ADL’s “fire superiority” tactical approach for engaging a dreadnought-class battleship like the Revenge. With the planet as a shield and the fleet’s maneuver speed limited, their numbers mattered less now. And Keelic had arranged another advantage.

At a signal from Las, the remaining planetary defense satellites powered up and opened fire. Ship-killer missiles detonated by the hundreds under the defense satellite barrage. The satellites walked their fire outward, detonating missiles in a rolling wave. Keelic accelerated into the plasma blooms of their annihilation, pushing the ship right to the edge of speed that would set off the anti-luminal mines. Shock waves buffeted the battleship, slamming it about in gut-wrenching swerves. Las held course and shot out of the boiling plasma, emerging in the outer minefield between two ADL battle groups. Her shield had survived the sun-hot plasma storm of the ship-killer detonations, but was now a ravaged dark gray.

Though the defense platforms had stopped firing the moment all the ship-killers were destroyed, the ADL fleet continued pouring fire into the satellites in rippling waves of torpedoes threaded by lancing beams. The ADL seemed intent on destroying the satellites completely, again as Mr. Hallod predicted. Their focus on the satellites granted Las precious seconds as she sailed for the edge of the minefield.

Recovering from her unexpected survival and appearance among them, the ADL swung their fire to Las in a show of fine coordination and accuracy.

Holding his breath, Keelic watched as his point defenses ripped into the incoming fire, filling space with varicolored chaos. ADL beam weapons cut through the explosions and slashed at his ship. Las rolled to distribute the strikes over greater shield area. Warnings flowed across Thotti’s console as he exceeded all tolerances to keep the weakened shield intact. Keelic looked down, checking fire rates and power projections. Many of the ADL beam weapons were as powerful as their own, which was amazing given how small the ADL warships were compared to the Revenge.

The ADL ships had all flipped end for end, and were boosting at maximum nominal output to accelerate after the Revenge, but Las was leaving them behind. Despite the expanding distance, thousands of long-range weapons continued to tear at her.

Keelic sat forward, eyes on the shield indicators, measuring their decline against a countdown to the point where the ship could go translight. They weren’t going to make it.

Experience and training came to the fore, and he cried, “Las, hit them! Make ’em fall back!”

The ship surged forward as dense-matter torpedoes launched from her aft accelerators. Twenty of the largest ADL vessels staggered as a single, massive pockmark appeared on their shields. Their beam fire flickered out as energy diverted to shields and inertial integrity.

Seconds before the Revenge reached mine-free space, alarms wailed as an aft shield projector overloaded. Beams ripped into the ship. Keelic took control, flipping the twelve-kilometer-long vessel end for end to face the ADL as the fleet flowed up through the minefield in pursuit. Las cut the nominal engines as he did so, and they coasted backward toward free space.

Keelic targeted the closest ADL battleship, opening a direct hail at the same time, and said angrily, “I’m not here to fight, but this is to let you know I’m serious.”

He fired one of the main battery torpedoes.

“Keelic, no!” cried his mother.

The torpedo, vectored to miss the vessel, cut a swath through its shield, opening it up like a knife wound.

Keelic let his targeting systems play over the naked, unprotected vessel, then said, “Translight.”

Las spun them around, and went superluminal.

A translight probe launched through the ship’s translight barrier showed that a few hundred ADL vessels had leapt to pursue, but most of the ADL fleet remained stuck within the anti-luminal minefield.

The pursuit dropped out of translight, giving up the chase. Keelic collapsed back into the Command chair. Thotti hopped over and landed on him with bright victory colors. Keelic hugged him fiercely. They relaxed, leaning into each other, and watched as the system’s gas giant approached. Las dropped to nominal speed and settled in above the north magnetic pole, using the planet’s mass and powerful magnetic field to mask their position. It didn’t hurt that a wide debris field remained in orbit from the pirate fleet Keelic had engaged here.

He brought up the ship schematic and winced at the damage the ADL beams had done. Six strikes had made it through, and one had penetrated over a hundred meters into the hull, just missing an aft torpedo tube.

“Las, was anyone back there?”

“No sir, all civilians are secure in the ship’s command core.”

Keelic flew through the damaged areas virtually, augmented with actual visuals where available. The edges of the wounds still glowed. It reminded him of the very first battle he’d witnessed on the flight to Ermol with his family.

Thotti flashed him a view of the bridge. Everyone was looking at him. Waiting for him. Reluctantly, he pushed off the neural interface.

No one spoke, not even Mr. Hallod, who was looking at Keelic with an expression of shock, admiration, and concern. His mother’s eyes were a little wild, her breathing fast and shallow. Keelic looked away. Seeing her like that smothered the thrill of their escape. He glared at the upper ring of bridge consoles where the members of the Planetary Council were recovering. Two bristled in response, but none of the others would meet his gaze. The planetary steward’s eyes were lidded as he watched Keelic, but there was sweat dripping down his face, and Thotti let Keelic know the man was frightened. And violently angry.

Okay, watch him, thought Keelic.

Blue affirmation.

“Captain,” said Las. “We are receiving a hail. Origin vectors to Ermol.”

“Play it.”

“Commander of the vessel identified as Revenge,” said a man with hard eyes and a clipped voice. “I am Admiral Bensk of the Alliance Defense League. I am prepared to discuss terms for your surrender.”

Before anyone else could respond, Keelic said, “Are you stupid? I could have killed you. But I didn’t! I told you who we are. We are not pirates, so don’t come after me. I know how to fight way better than they did.”

Mr. Hallod suppressed a grimace, and raised a finger to indicate to Las that he wished to respond.

He said in a formal tone, “Admiral Bensk, I am Finder Charles Hallod of the Pathfinders of the Core. You received my full authentication with our transmission. You have attacked a Pathfinder vessel as well as an independent Announcer in their home matrix. I understand that there are extenuating circumstances. We are willing to allow all forms of necessary validation, including hosting an away party from your fleet. By now your Announcers will have summarized the package we transmitted. Keelic Travers has defeated Jaw Taka-ta-Kua and captured the Death Cloud, now named the Revenge. He deserves a hero’s welcome.”

There was a long pause, longer than transmission delay warranted.

The admiral said, “Pathfinder Hallod, planetary piracy must be investigated to the full extent of the Interstellar Code. Please return to Ermol so that we may begin. If we verify your claims, you will be free to go.”

Keelic took a breath to blast the admiral, but Mr. Hallod cut him off with a gesture.

The Pathfinder’s demeanor was hard as he touched a com panel and said, “Admiral, analyze the package. You have four hours.” He cut the connection. To Keelic he said, “Captain, we should move the ship. They will have vectored our transmission.”

Keelic nodded. “Las, take us out to the cometary band. Find something for us to hide behind.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Mr. Hallod,” said the planetary steward, “you can’t be serious. We must return to Ermol. We cannot disobey a senior official of the ADL!”

When Mr. Hallod simply looked at him, the steward added, “My people want to go home.”

“That can be arranged,” replied the Pathfinder. “Now, if the council will excuse us, I wish to consult with the captain.”

Keelic made a point of opening the bridge doors. The steward’s face reddened. He strode out, pulling the rest of the council along with him, except for one man dressed in expensive ship-silks and walking with a slight limp. The man stepped down into the Command well, strode up to Keelic, and bowed.

“I am Ale Harcourt. I owe my life to you.”

The statement was true, but Keelic blushed to hear it and couldn’t keep back a shy grin at the recognition.

Ale glanced into the holo pit’s view of the system, and said, “Were I thirty years younger, I’d ask to accompany you wherever it is you are going, because it’s going to be a deep, cold ride. But my deep sailing days are past.” He met Keelic’s gaze. “Should you need anything, my accounts are live on most worlds. Give your name, and every local asset I have will be at your command.”

Stunned, Keelic couldn’t muster a reply.

Ale bowed again, nodded to Mr. Hallod, then followed after the rest of the council.

Keelic’s father came in looking over his shoulder at the departing council. “I saw what you did, Keelic. Amazing. So what do we do now? I think the steward is about to go nova.” He walked over to the Navigation seat and put a hand on his wife’s shoulder.

Keelic shut the bridge doors, and with a glance asked Mr. Hallod to do the talking.

The Pathfinder said, “We’ve given Admiral Bensk four hours to realize that he is not the dominant power in the system.”

Keelic’s mother looked up. “He’s not? All those ships. We almost didn’t . . .”

Her husband took her hands and said, “Sarah, that’s because Keelic didn’t fight. That was the plan. No ADL losses.”

She nodded, but looked confused, and vulnerable.

Rage crimsoned up within Keelic. This wasn’t his mother. She was so much stronger than this. What had Jaw done to her?

A sudden urge to find and destroy all the pirates spurred him to ask, “Las, any pirates in combat range?”

“Yes, Captain, I am tracking one vessel that is drifting within a cometary cloud sixteen light-minutes away.”

“Destroy it.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Keelic’s parents looked at him in alarm.

His father said, “You promised to let them go.”

Clenching his jaw, Keelic suppressed the urge to shout, But they hurt you!

Under the foursome gaze of Mr. Hallod, Leesol, and his parents, he relented.

“Las, belay.”

“Belay attack, aye.”

“But tell the ADL where they are.”

“I have transmitted their coordinates to the ADL.”

He waited for his parents to object. They looked worried, but no one said a word. If they accepted that battle orders were his to give, then they accepted him as captain. His thinking cleared, and he said to Mr. Hallod, “Do we make for Vewbon space?”

This was the last contingency he and his mentor had planned out. If the ADL proved unrelentingly hostile and rejected all negotiation, they would make for far space and the security of the Vewbon Protectorate.

“Not yet, Captain,” said Mr. Hallod.

To Keelic, the title felt solid, though heavier. He kept his back straight to hold the new weight.

The Pathfinder studied the holo pit map of the ADL’s disposition across the Ermol system, and said, “The ADL will not tolerate a warship of this class in nongovernmental possession. Pathfinder registry must be made official. We need to get to the Pathfinder base at Deepholm, but we will not be able to approach unless Admiral Bensk is completely convinced that we aren’t a threat. Doing so will be a challenge, as everything about this vessel beams threat. Nothing like it has been built since the War. Bensk has a good reputation, but I’m not sure his thinking is flexible enough to handle this situation without help. The mining of the Beacon Way by Jaw was unfortunate, and set the ADL on a revenge vector. We must now give the admiral a route that avoids any gravity-well he can’t escape, official or personal. So, Keelic—no more threats, no matter what he says. You and Las are the power here.”

Keelic nodded.

Mr. Hallod said, “It is now the admiral’s move. Until his fleets are clear of the defense array, he is pinned at Ermol, and our position on the system periphery lets us see everything he does. Right now his strategists are explaining to him how completely we anticipated their tactics. Let’s give him some time to think.”

Keelic nodded.

They watched on passive long-range sensors as elements of the ADL fleet swarmed the drifting pirate sixteen light-minutes away. It did not attempt to escape, and after boarding it, the ADL took the ship back toward Ermol.

Half an hour later, a long-range ADL probe approached the icy planetoid Keelic was using for cover. The probe scanned the probes that he had set out, and they scanned it back. After a minute of mutual data gathering, the ADL probe settled down to watch.

Keelic left it alone. Brooding in the Command chair, he had the bridge to himself. Everyone else had gone to get food, including Thotti, but he and the alien were always in contact, so he didn’t feel entirely alone. The bridge door opened, and he sat up to see who had entered.

It was Leesol with a tray of two-hundred-year-old ship rations and a water container. She brought it down to him, and he scooted to one side so she could sit next to him in the big chair. Her shoulder and thigh were warm against his, and she smelled like a mix of herself and the ship’s cleanser, a combined scent he was starting to like. Wanting to impress her, he brought up a high-resolution image of the sun big enough to fill the holo pit.

“More sunspots than last year,” said Leesol, fiddling with the braid of her yellow hair.

He looked down at the gray ship rations. They had no smell and less taste.

Leesol giggled.

He looked at her, and she said, “Caterpillar poop. They look like thorn worm droppings.”

Keelic smiled and set the tray aside. He would have to be a lot hungrier before he would touch another ration.

“Why didn’t you go down and get some real food?” he asked. “You have Haffna.”

“I wish,” she said. “Da doesn’t want anyone to know that we have the shuttle. He says everyone will want to use it. It’s better if they don’t.”

Keelic didn’t understand, but didn’t feel like admitting it. He nodded, and zoomed the display on the largest sunspot.

Putting her hands in her lap, Leesol said, “My dad wants me to ask you something. He wants to know what you want to do.”

Keelic switched the display to show a long-range image of Ermol.

“I think he means longer out,” said Leesol. “Farther than what happens today.”

“You mean forever?”

Leesol nodded.

Embarrassed to say what he really wanted, he used the Command panels to run readiness checks on the weapons grid.

“You should also check power, environment, and structural integrity,” suggested Leesol.

The way she said it, he could hear the same excitement he had about the ship. He really liked her for that. Leaning back into the contours of the Command seat, Keelic took in the wondrous bridge of the Galactic War–era battleship. In front of him, the holo pit was ringed by big Command seats facing into the display. Above and around the Command well, a broad tier held thirty systems control consoles facing outward. Many remained shattered and melted from his battle for the bridge. No amount of cleaning or ventilation had cleared the smell of burned components and vaporized bodies from the air. That didn’t matter because the ship was his.

He imagined himself doing what he wanted more than anything. He sat up and said to Leesol, “Forever, I want to fly this ship.”

Leesol’s eyes were bright as she looked at him, and he felt like he’d said the right thing.

Thotti gave him a mental push—blue affirmation whirled with warm orange with a touch of command silver.

In a quiet voice, Keelic said, “Pathfinder.”

Almost smug, Leesol gave him a peck on the cheek, hopped out of the seat, and left the bridge. The spot where she kissed him tingled.

“Las,” he said, “diag environment and structural integrity. Power, too.”

As he reviewed the ship’s problems and what Las was doing to address them, a message, text only, was relayed via the nearby ADL probe. The message requested that the Revenge rendezvous with the Deepholm flagship Odin to verify events and gather evidence as a part of the official piracy investigation. There was a list of conditions including no shields and no power to weapons. After considering whether to call Mr. Hallod for advice, Keelic sent an acknowledgment agreeing to the meeting.


***


The region of space specified for the meeting was on the other side of Ermol from the System Beacon, putting the entire planetary defense array between them and the Beacon Way.

As they approached, Las shared images from her sensors showing various battle groups of the ADL fleet sweeping the system. Occasional flurries of energy indicated where pirate vessels had been hiding.

Odin, a sleek but somewhat brutal-looking super-battleship, waited at the rendezvous, and looked to sensor sweeps like it was almost entirely powered down. Following that lead, Keelic completely de-powered the torpedo tubes, and put the main power core on standby. Tensile fields in the console chairs hummed on to hold everyone in place as the gravity generated by the main torpedo tubes faded. Keelic stationed the Revenge within easy shuttle distance, stopping alongside Odin at what was the equivalent of hand-to-hand-combat distance for the two ships. The moment that relative motion stopped between the vessels, Admiral Bensk hailed them.

“Pathfinder Hallod, thank you for your prompt arrival. My first officer will accompany the investigative team. While they work, I would like to invite you to dine here on Odin.”

Mr. Hallod had changed into a formal dark-blue Pathfinder ship-suit with gold piping. He responded, “Thank you Admiral, that will be a pleasure. Our Announcer assures me that the rations on board retain sufficient nutrition, but after two centuries they lose anything resembling flavor.”

“I can assure you a finer meal than any shiprat, ancient or new,” said Admiral Bensk.

Mr. Hallod replied, “We will depart immediately.”

The admiral nodded and cut the connection.

Keelic’s father asked, “Are you going to leave the ship?”

“Indeed,” said Mr. Hallod. “I’m looking forward to that meal.”

“But is it safe?” asked Keelic’s mother, recalling their desperate escape from this admiral’s fleet.

Mr. Hallod looked at her kindly, and said, “The admiral is fulfilling my highest hopes. He has reviewed whatever records are recoverable from the pirate vessels he’s captured, which will validate the data we sent him. He sends his first officer here as a mutual guarantee against foul play while we are aboard his ship. It is an ancient tradition, knowledge of which shows some class. The admiral has reviewed the battle records in detail by now, and knows that even his flagship is no match for a fully functional Lasiter Attack Frigate. With Keelic at the helm, his entire fleet is at risk. As I read the admiral, he will take no action to endanger his flagship or fleet without strong provocation, and he and I are of equivalent rank. Shall we go, Keelic?”

“What about my friend? Can he come?”

Mr. Hallod considered. “Can Thotti fly the ship?”

It was a new idea for Keelic. They had learned everything together. Of course Thotti could fly the ship.

“Yes, he can,” said Keelic.

“Then I recommend he stay.”

Turning, Keelic said, “You have the bridge.”

Thotti’s eyestalks went straight. After Keelic left the Command seat, Thotti floated over to the chair. With dignity, he rotated to face the console, and bent one eye to the panels and the other to the holo pit. Using six arms at the same time, he rearranged the panels to his liking. When Keelic paused at the bridge door, Thotti raised a pair of arms to one eye in a Terra Corps salute.

After returning the ancient salute, Keelic pulled himself off the bridge to sail down the hall after Mr. Hallod.

In the shuttle bay, Keelic stopped at the threshold of Haffna, Mr. Hallod’s sleek Vewbon shuttle. There was a test he needed to make before leaving his ship.

“Las, if I ask you to go to Battle Protocol, my voice only, will you?”

“Yes, Captain.” There was no hesitation in her response.

Thinking about what that meant, and whether he actually needed to lock down control of the Revenge, Keelic looked to Mr. Hallod. The Pathfinder’s face was unreadable. Without saying anything more, Keelic pulled himself aboard Haffna. The interior of the small shuttle was a single room with only a pair of pilot chairs occupying the center. Gravity asserted itself gently and Mr. Hallod and Keelic each took a seat.

As Haffna soared out of the shuttle bay in its silent way of moving, the interior of the shuttle vanished around them, leaving a completely unrestricted view of space, and the Revenge. Keelic had never seen the ship from the outside and stared. It was immense, filling the field of view, and though pitted and scorched, she seemed to radiate power. It was so potent a sight that Keelic found himself choked up, grateful that Mr. Hallod wasn’t the kind for idle chat. In fact, Mr. Hallod seemed impressed as well. They both sighed at the same moment, then grinned at each other.

The ADL shuttle passed by, and Haffna scanned it, finding nothing aboard beyond what should be necessary for the ADL investigation. Keelic turned his attention away from his ship, and zoomed in the view of the Odin. The battleship had a functional and brutal grace. Grace came from the necessity of traveling within a slipstream barrier, which promoted long ship forms, but beauty ended at squared ends, hulking beam-weapon turrets, and countless hard-edged protrusions in a variety of shapes. At six kilometers long and two kilometers wide near the middle, it was a lot smaller than the Revenge.

Keelic found himself turning until his chair and Mr. Hallod’s faced each other. Feeling like he did the first time he had met Mr. Hallod in school, Keelic straightened his back, determined not to disappoint his teacher.

Mr. Hallod said, “Leesol told me your answer. I would like to hear your plan myself.”

“I want to be a Pathfinder, sir.”

He had no idea what made him add on the honorific, but it felt right.

“Keelic Travers, captain of the Revenge,” said Mr. Hallod. “I accept your application to the Pathfinder Academy.”

Keelic’s mouth opened, and then stayed that way as he drew in a long, surprised breath. Mr. Hallod leaned forward and pinned a Pathfinder signet high on Keelic’s right lapel, a match to the one Mr. Hallod wore on his Pathfinder ship-suit.

Keelic was about to leap up for sheer happiness when Mr. Hallod said, “Consider this your first training mission.”

That brought Keelic back, and he shut his mouth.

“I expect you to act with the dignity and reserve expected of every Pathfinder,” said Mr. Hallod.

When he paused, Keelic nodded.

Looking Keelic in the eye, the Pathfinder said, “As captain of the Revenge, you own a responsibility greater than most men ever know. Greater than anyone you have ever met. More than your father. More than a planetary steward. More than me. That ship is a power in the galaxy. And you are not yet a man.”

Keelic frowned, but didn’t say anything.

Mr. Hallod’s eyes held none of their usual good humor. “How old are you?”

Keelic thought, What does it matter? But Mr. Hallod clearly expected him to respond. Unsure whether to be angry or proud, Keelic said, “Twelve.”

“Is that the age of a man?”

Keelic clenched his jaw, and said nothing.

The Pathfinder repeated in a cold tone, “Is that the age of a man?”

Afraid he might lose the signet, Keelic answered, “No, sir.”

“Are you captain of the Lasiter Attack Frigate Revenge?”

“Yes!”

Mr. Hallod held his eyes. “And yet, most will say you are not yet a man, yourself included.”

Most? That implied that someone might actually consider him to be a man. What was Mr. Hallod saying?

His mentor said, “You are the captain of a sentient killing machine, one of the most deadly weapons humanity has ever created. You have the power to kill worlds.”

That was a crazy idea, and Keelic said earnestly, “But I never would. Ever.”

“Admiral Bensk doesn’t know that. In fact, all he does know is that you defeated an entire fleet. And you spared his.”

Mr. Hallod waited for Keelic to reason it through. They were getting close to the Odin. A shuttle bay opened in the matte-black hull. Absently, Keelic noted that the ship’s giant weapons turrets were turned away from their approach vector.

“He’s afraid of me?”

“Not fear. He commands the entire Deepholm fleet. But you are a threat. An incredibly dangerous and unknown factor. He will be both cautious and ruthless, looking for any reason to take command of the Revenge. His duty is to destroy the Revenge if he cannot secure it. If the ship can be shown to have a stable, wise captain, it will limit the admiral’s approaches.”

“You want me to show him I’m a real captain.”

“Yes. Give him no reason to think of you as anything else. Show him the respect and honor he deserves. Him and all his crew. They are your peers now. If you can remember, address him as Las addresses you. Here.” Mr. Hallod handed him a small tablet. “Your ship’s log, for the admiral.”

“Won’t Las have given this to them already?”

“Yes, but officer to officer has a certain symbology. Goodwill between men.”

Keelic liked the sound of that.

“We have another point in our favor,” said Mr. Hallod. “Haffna, Ermol please.”

The view shifted so that it appeared they were in close orbit above the planet.

“What’s missing?” asked Mr. Hallod.

There were a lot of warships in orbit and the catcher-net defense grid had been repaired, its torpedo catch-field slightly obscuring ground resolution. Smoke streaked from some areas of the surface, and Keelic guessed that there were forest fires still burning. He found the site of his home, now a lake, and Alpha Base, with no activity visible. Was that it? The base? He looked at Mr. Hallod.

The Pathfinder said, “If they know about it, they aren’t making a show. I think they don’t. The passive camouflage that has kept the base hidden for over three centuries is the structure itself. Knowing this is essentially worthless to us, yet it can be of value to the admiral. He can gain a great deal by being the man who returns Alpha Base to humanity, and it will be our gift to him. When the time is right.”

Keelic wondered when that would be, but Mr. Hallod became involved with landing Haffna and didn’t say anything more. Within the shuttle bay, Haffna settled before a small greeting party. Admiral Bensk himself was at point.

Keelic felt his pulse thumping in his head. His hands were sweaty, and he hoped Admiral Bensk didn’t want to shake hands old-Earth style. The air in the bay was cool, and had a lack of odor that was almost crisp in its purity. It made Keelic realize how smelly his ship was. Gravity here was a bit stronger.

The row of officers saluted, fingertips to forehead, elbows out, and Mr. Hallod bowed in the Pathfinder way, from the waist, fingers of both hands spread and tips touching below his chin. Keelic knew the Pathfinder bow from vids, but hadn’t thought that it was something Mr. Hallod would actually do. Following too quickly, he almost lost his balance, and blushed. Remembering what Mr. Hallod had said, he stood tall and reminded himself that his ship—his ship—was only a short distance away.

Admiral Bensk in person was broad shouldered and tall. A crisp figure, like the air. Some of Keelic’s fear faded as he realized that Admiral Bensk wasn’t half as scary as Jaw Taka-ta-Kua. The admiral’s eyes lingered for a moment on Keelic’s Pathfinder signet, then he looked Keelic in the eye. The admiral’s gaze was potent. Keelic felt himself being judged, and sighed in relief when the admiral turned to Mr. Hallod. Keelic didn’t really hear what they said to each other, and wished Thotti was there.

They turned to him, and he had no idea what to do. Had they asked him a question?

Raising the tablet, Keelic said, “Mr. Admiral, sir, my ship’s log.”

“Thank you, Travers,” said the commander of the Deepholm fleet.

He then introduced his twenty command officers. Keelic focused on following Mr. Hallod’s lead in greeting and bowing to each, concentrating so hard that he couldn’t remember any of their names after hearing them. The officers in turn looked at him as though he were the point of a joke they didn’t appreciate. For his composure, he kept thinking over and over that Las obeyed him as captain. It helped, but he couldn’t keep from clenching his jaw to hold down the irritation he felt at their dismissal. They were supposed to be his peers.

The group left the shuttle bay together, and Keelic noticed for the first time that there were guards at the doors. He looked at them closely. Their armor was of a type he’d never seen, perfectly smooth and the same color as the wall behind them. Probably some kind of Vewbon exoskin, he guessed.

Through a set of open blast doors stood another pair of guards, these facing inward. Keelic looked back at them and found both watching him. For some reason that made him smile.

The group stepped into a lift chamber, and a second later stepped off. There had been no feeling of movement and Keelic wondered how far they’d traveled. He was impressed that the in-ship transport was done with inertial-field support. Revenge had vacuum-tube mag-trains, but only one of them still held its vacuum seal.

The lift entry was flanked by another set of guards. A short corridor led to another guarded door, which opened on a dining room only slightly less austere than the corridors of the ship.

The table held exactly the number of chairs of the party. Admiral Bensk sat at the head of the table and invited Keelic and Mr. Hallod to take the chairs to his left and right. The table was wide and Keelic felt the distance away from Mr. Hallod. His chair raised itself to a comfortable height. Keelic kept his back straight, reminding himself, I’m a Pathfinder. A female officer sat next to him, and nodded.

Nervous, he nodded back. Her expression was curious rather than hostile, and Keelic felt relieved, giving her a second, stronger nod.

Servers appeared and poured what looked like wine into glasses, including Keelic’s. The admiral rose with glass in hand, and Keelic hopped out of his chair, slopping wine out of his glass because the floor had also risen with his chair without his knowing. He stood almost on a level with the adults.

Bensk raised his glass. “The Alliance. The fleet. The ship. Her crew.”

The officers repeated the toast in perfect unison, and the admiral looked to Mr. Hallod, who said, “Humanity.”

The admiral and the officers repeated it, and the admiral looked to Keelic.

His breath left him. His face felt hot, and he couldn’t think what to say. It was unfair to ask him with no warning. As the silence lingered, officers threw him superior looks. That made Keelic mad, and he knew what was most important for him to honor. He put his arm straight out, and said, “Anny.”

In not quite perfect unison, the table repeated, “Anny.”

Hearing them say it sent a wash of turbulent pain through him, and he had to blink away tears, grateful that everyone was taking a drink rather than looking at him. Except for Mr. Hallod, who drank with thoughtful eyes on Keelic.

As the first courses came and went, Keelic calmed a bit, grateful that the admiral chose Mr. Hallod to talk with. He glanced down the table where the officers talked in polite tones, or ate and listened to their comrades.

By the fourth course, he was feeling warm and flushed. The officer beside him looked over and said, “May I ask where are you from?”

“Pesfor 3.”

She nodded. “Nice planet. I take leave there when I can. Is that where you joined the Pathfinders?”

Keelic froze.

“Apol,” said the officer. “Didn’t mean to push boundary.”

Keelic strove not to look at Mr. Hallod for reassurance.

“I was crèched and raised on Orbit’s Edge,” continued the woman. “Not a place you hear about, but closer to Earth than most. Only things out there worth seeing are the shipyards. Yards that built a few Lasiters, near the end of the War. They’re a museum now.” She paused to take a bite, and looking at Keelic sidewise, added, “Not like your ship.”

He replied, “Las is cold. The best.”

The officer grinned, and said, “I’ll bet she is. When I was your age, all I dreamed about was Lasiters.”

“Me too,” said Keelic.

The officer chuckled. “You know, I should thank you. My brother serves on the ship whose shield you skinned.”

Uncomfortable, Keelic focused on his plate.

She turned toward him. “It was hard, I’ll bet. With us sending everything we had at you, not to fire back. Not sure I could have done it. Was a bit of a shock when you put down twenty capital ships without scratching a single hull. We thought we had Jaw by the tether, and no one expected maneuvers like that. Juun won’t believe I ate with you. Juun’s my brother.”

Keelic looked at her face. She seemed sincere.

“I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” he said.

She nodded, then leaned over to him and whispered, “Just some pride.”

Earnestly Keelic whispered back, “But she’s a Lasiter. Fully operational, and I’ve been trained. You shouldn’t feel bad.”

After a pause, the officer nodded, and almost to herself said, “Cold and straight.”

The meal was very good, and he was enjoying the wine. Though he felt eyes on him, none were openly hostile since the lady officer had started talking to him.

“I’m Commander Piwande,” she said.

She held her fist out, and Keelic rapped knuckles with her in the Pesfor style.

“At table you can call me Pi.”

Keelic nodded.

“Can I ask you a question about your battle with Jaw’s fleet?” she asked.

Keelic didn’t resist looking at Mr. Hallod, but he was deep in conversation with Admiral Bensk.

“Okay.”

“The data you sent shows you traded Jaw for the hostages. Was there no other way?”

Sighing, Keelic leaned back in his chair and looked out beyond the ship. “I couldn’t think of anything else. I had to get them back.”

“Them?”

“My parents. I had to get them back. I saw them taken.”

Pi considered, then said, “Wasn’t it dangerous to engage the fleet when they could be on any vessel?”

“I knew where they were. I heard one of Jaw’s people say that all prisoners were on the Nova-Lance, and Las broke the pirates’ com encryption to make sure which ship it was.”

“Can you tell me how you took the Lasiter bridge?”

No one knew how he’d done it. He hadn’t even told Mr. Hallod. What he and Thotti could do working together was the kind of thing that scared adults. But what was he going to tell this ADL officer? An inspiration came to him, and he said, “That’s a Pathfinder secret.”

Pi stared at him for a second too long before saying, “Oh.”

“But afterward I did a full Purge and Recalibration. That’s why Las has no memories until I took over. They were flying the ship without an Announcer before that. They grafted on some external controls to bridge terminals and did it all manually. But they hadn’t touched the Announcer matrix, and Las came on full. She didn’t like seeing a Quat-lat Kay-ku ship with the pirates.”

The table had gone silent with every officer listening to him.

“Please go on, Mr. Travers,” said Admiral Bensk.

“The pirates didn’t know I had the ship until I told them I wanted my . . . the prisoners, but they didn’t shoot at me because they knew I had Jaw. But the Quatie didn’t care and came after me.” He paused as visions of the attack swamped him. He clenched his fists under the table, then forced himself back into the present. “They attacked. In the minefield. It was like when you . . . but I fought back. We got out, but the Quatie ship was faster than me, and they knew about dense-matter torpedoes, how to avoid them, but they’d never seen a Sweep-n-Roll.”

One of the officers down the table said, “We found the hull today. You got them all.”

Keelic gave a weak smile. They were all looking at him to continue, even Mr. Hallod.

Keelic found that he didn’t want to talk about the battle, but they were all waiting, and it was why he was here. “The fleet dropped out of translight all around me in a nested-prisms formation. They came in so thick our beams were saturated with targets at only a third of their range. We couldn’t get away. Battle groups kept transiting ahead of any course I made, too many in the way to go translight. They did that on purpose to keep us trapped, and started battle group reconfiguration, sending in their biggest capital ships. So I used the main tubes to take out the dreadnoughts and battleships.”

“Dark gods,” breathed someone.

“I cleared an area in front of us with all my beams, and made translight. They still came after me. But I’d done this before, and used Obetra to shield a course reverse and was right there when their translight shields dropped.” He paused, remembering the sight of hundreds of ships being gutted by his beams, spewing bodies and wreckage.

“They gave me back my parents after that.”

A grim but electrified silence held the table. Officers exchanged looks.

Mr. Hallod said, “Why don’t you tell us where you got your training, Captain Travers?”

That was a lot more cheerful, and Keelic reached for his wineglass, as his mouth was dry, but wine didn’t seem right anymore.

“Can I have some water?”

The mood at the table shifted, and two or three people called, “Water for the captain,” only to subside under looks from Bensk. Water was provided, and Keelic gulped it.

After wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he said, “I found Alpha Base.”

A ripple of doubt traversed the table, and one white-haired officer swore under his breath, looking at Keelic in disbelief. Admiral Bensk cut himself another bite of food and watched Keelic with a skeptical but not hostile gaze as he chewed.

Pi asked, “Terra Corps Alpha Base?”

Keelic was looking at the white-haired officer. There was a long pause as they exchanged glares. Irritated, but not intimidated, Keelic turned to Pi, and said, “Yep, Lasiter Training Base Alpha.”

The white-haired officer scoffed. Picking up some affirmative looks around the table, he flipped his napkin onto his plate. The look of derisive superiority he aimed at Keelic cut to the bone, and Keelic looked away.

“How did you find the base?” asked Pi.

Keelic didn’t respond. He was on the verge of telling them to go find it themselves. Pi swung her gaze around to the officer. His look froze, and it was his turn to look down and away. As Pi turned back, Keelic caught a slight angle on the expression she’d turned on the man, and felt a chill. She was friendly and interested now, encouraging him to continue, but he was wary. He chanced a glance at Mr. Hallod, but the Pathfinder was watching Pi. That was warning enough, and oddly it gave Keelic a measure of strength to know that his mentor had also seen her like that.

Straight-backed, he said to Piwande, “Do you believe me?”

She saw the change in him, and, dropping some of the “friendly interest” look, said, “I do.”

Keelic looked at Mr. Hallod. His mentor didn’t know this part.

“The first thing I found was the rifle. It was in a cave in the bluff, at the bottom of a pool. But it was airless that it was there at all. A Mark V.”

By the way the crew’s looks intensified, Mr. Hallod’s included, it was clear that they all knew about the War-era heavy infantry rifle, a nuclear-powered gamma-ray laser.

“It still works. I used it on the pirates.”

Again, looks were exchanged around the table.

“When was that?” asked Pi.

“When they attacked. I was in the Lasiter simulator, and when we came out, Anny told me to hide. The space station was under attack, and after the catcher-net grid went down, they took my parents.” His heart was beating hard. “I tried to stop them.” His hands wrinkled wads of tablecloth as he remembered seeing his parents taken, and the torpedo that killed Anny wiping out his house. He didn’t want to talk about this anymore. He wanted to be back on the bridge of his ship.

The wall at the end of the room vanished into a hazy view of the northern hemisphere of Ermol. It looked like some kind of long-range scan. Keelic recognized it as the area where he used to live. Clouds obscured the mountains north of Alpha Base, but the rest of the atmosphere was clear.

“We pulled this from the log of a distant pirate scout,” said Pi. “Time stamps put this view eighteen minutes after the planetary defense grid collapsed.” The screen zoomed in, and the image pixilated. A reticle circled a rectangle of gray pixels moving in slowly from the northeast. “We think this is a Paboosht atmospheric transport.”

Light and energy erupted from the aft of the vessel, and it began to slip sideways, its aspect changing shape. Keelic remembered it tumbling, trailing smoke. Seconds later, the ship vanished in a large energy bloom as it crashed into the forest. The sound of its demise had been incredible. Pi looked at Keelic, but he didn’t say anything. The image zoomed back, and the reticle highlighted a smaller vessel, stationary, then moving at speed toward the crashed transport. It vanished in an intense burst.

“As best we can tell, that was a proto-gunship. Twelve minutes later the System Beacon recorded two gamma-ray scatters consistent with a Terra Corps infantry weapon discharge.” She turned to Keelic.

Was she accusing him? He’d fought those ships for his parents, and would do so again. He glared at Commander Piwande, letting her know he wouldn’t back down.

Pi took Keelic’s gaze without apparent effect, and said, “We couldn’t figure that one out, even when we got this indirect scan. Who had fired a gamma-ray laser at the pirates? We assumed that whoever they were, they died in the plasma strafing laid down a few minutes later by a second gunship. With the data we have, as far as we can tell, these were the only serious counterstrikes made during the attack.”

Mollified somewhat, Keelic said, “That was me.”

Silently he added, But I wasn’t enough. The entire scan went white from the torpedo strike on his home. He stood, staring at the screen, jaw tight as he watched everything he’d loved most, burn.

Mr. Hallod said, “That was Captain Travers’s home.”

The image faded away to a blank wall, and Keelic became aware of the scrutiny of everyone at the table. He sat down abruptly. Someone refilled his water glass, and he took a long drink.

“Captain,” said Pi respectfully. “Would you show us where you found Alpha Base?”

After a moment, Keelic nodded.

A high-resolution, present-time scan of Ermol appeared at the end of the room. A pulsing reticle was centered over the lake where his house had been. He got up from the table and walked over to the wall. Everyone rose and followed after him. The reticle went where his finger indicated. He drew a circle around the bluff.

Vegetation vanished in the display, showing the base relief of the area with its sinkholes. Keelic looked around at the officers to see if anyone recognized what they really were. The rock became transparent and what looked like a system of underground lakes began to resolve, but remained fuzzy.

“That’s the camo,” said Keelic. “Can you improve resolution? Anny’s scanners couldn’t, and she was good.”

“Venting hell,” said Bensk with sudden understanding.

Keelic grinned up at him. The admiral didn’t return the look.

The officers began running analytics. The image shifted spectrum, data appeared on the margins, and areas detached and rotated from all angles as the officers tried to solve the puzzle. The admiral grunted in disgust. His crew leaned in and the image shifted more and more, a few breaking off to other walls to try their own scans and experiments.

Pi zoomed out the display, and the pattern of sinkholes took on a distinct, localized outline.

“Pierce-beam craters,” called someone off to the side. “It’s a fortress.”

“Yep,” said Keelic. “That’s how I got in. It wasn’t hard to convince the Ann that I was an admiral.”

Pi smothered a smile.

From the edge of the view, something shrouded in heat and light vectored toward the base. It was small and fast, and Keelic wondered what it was. From the lack of surprise among the officers, it must be one of their ships. They were going to investigate the base right now. Indignant that they would do so without his consent, he pointed out something they were missing.

“It’s a Terra Corps base.”

No one reacted. They seemed to think he was stating the obvious. He sighed, and considered letting them do what they wanted, and see how the Base-Announcer reacted to an armed incursion. It would be funny to let them try. He wondered how much she had managed to repair. It might not be so funny if she had recovered real defensive abilities. People could get hurt, or they could damage her.

In a lecturing tone, he said, “It’s a Terra Corps base on a war standing.”

Pi and a few others looked at him.

Exasperated, he said, “She still thinks the War is happening. She doesn’t know about the ADL.”


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